WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
It took a series of events to bring Carmel Hunt from her native Ireland to Edmonton.
Carmel Hunt was born into a ready-made community. As the youngest of nine children, she grew up learning that although everyone in her busy home was of the same family, everyone was different.
"What was ingrained in us was that it was okay to be different, but we needed to respect each other," said Hunt.
Over the past 27 years she has spent as part of L'Arche Edmonton, that need to respect others, especially those who are different, has been even more deeply ingrained.
Preparing to give a witness talk at the Week for Life and the Family on May 9 at the Catholic Pastoral Centre in Edmonton, she came to the realization that she had many people - all so different - who have helped shape her into who she is today.
The town that she grew up in, Ballinasloe, Ireland, was home to St. Brigid's Psychiatric Hospital. Both of her parents, three sisters and a brother were psychiatric nurses there. Patients from the hospital were always around the town, and she knew many of them by name.
At age eight, coming home from school one day, one patient whose name was Mick rubbed her head and complimented her curls.
"I started to cry, and ran home as fast as I could. I think I was listening to too many stories about the patients from my school friends," said Hunt.
Her father told her that Mick would not harm her, and he reminded her that she needed to respect Mick and all of the other patients.
"My father was a wise man, and I am very grateful to him to this day," she said.
As a teenager, she was part of a youth group that regularly visited the psychiatric hospital. A woman named Mary, following the birth of her son, had been committed to the hospital with post-partum depression. The regulations at that time dictated that she could not be discharged from the hospital unless her family supported her.
"Can you imagine? It was at this time as a teenager that I realized the stigma attached to having a mental disability or a mental illness. Mary was ostracized by her family and ostracized by society. She was a woman who never got to see her son. Can you imagine her anguish?" asked Hunt.
Instead of following in her family's footsteps of becoming a psychiatric nurse, Hunt opted for a career in catering. She stayed with this job for a few years, but her heart was not in it.
Then, God intervened. Two of her brothers-in-law died in a 12-month period. Shaken by their deaths, at age 24, she decided to do something more with her life.
Joining a group of lay missionaries, she was to go overseas to Prince George with the Frontier Apostolate. The plan fell through. Instead, she was asked to come to Edmonton and become an assistant with L'Arche, a community for the intellectually disabled, founded by Jean Vanier.
Three years earlier, she had read Vanier's book, Be Not Afraid, about respecting differences and acknowledging the gifts of others.
Now her plan was to stay one year with L'Arche and spend a second year teaching home economics in Kenya, before returning to Ireland. Again, God had other plans. Arriving in Edmonton in 1986, she began her journey with L'Arche.
One evening she was supposed to cook supper, but she had a bad headache and went to lie down in bed. As for the people she was to help, they instead helped her. Debbie came by with a blanket to cover her. Cecile made some tea and brought it over. Henry and Mary tidied up the kitchen.
"It was at that point I realized that the caring and service went both ways. I began to learn more about mutually transforming relationships. It was a very humbling moment in my life," said Hunt.
Almost 27 years later, Hunt remains with L'Arche Edmonton, serving as an individual care administrator.
"We live in a world that values perfection, productivity and people that are the same as us. There's a lot of pressure to conform. I've heard it referred to as the tyranny of normalization.
"We have to be like everyone else, make money, look beautiful, have good grades, a good house, a good job. Individual success is measured by these criteria, by being the same as others," explained Hunt.
The world is frightened by difference. Meeting someone who is different, many people are not sure how to react. She said a common reaction is to not treat them with respect and dignity.
"We forget that the commandment to love others as I have loved you didn't come with conditions. There is no fine print," said Hunt.
"I've learned that people with disabilities are the best teachers I know of unconditional love."
Thirteen years ago, a woman told her that people with disabilities should be allowed to die at birth. The woman's opinion shocked her.
Many women opt to abort if they learn that their child will be born with Down's syndrome. The would-be mother is made to feel that having a child with a disability will be a burden and something best avoided.
"Some see it as a punishment from God for some former wrongdoing, and others see it as a sign of weakness. It's hard for people to see the child as a gift from God," said Hunt.
She cannot imagine her life without her friends from L'Arche. She appreciates their capacity to love, forgive and be welcoming, their ability to be themselves, and their ability to accept her for who she is.
Today, Hunt is grateful for the years of working with people who have shared magnificent gifts.
"I feel blessed that I've been on this journey with so many wonderful people."